I perhaps haven’t really explained what I’m doing; I’m working on a Hidden Histories project at Tatton Park to try to find a way to tell the stories of the servants and by contrast the family that lived on the estate for over 300 years. It’s discovering and unpicking the stories and ways to tell them through the wealth of research that is being carried out there; from letters and records, wine cellar log books, newspaper cuttings and reports of how technology was used in the kitchens and corridors of Tatton Park. The idea is to create a tour, a performance tour that tells some of the stories, the everyday that have happened within the walls of the building. It’s quite big. It’s quite exciting.
Last week I spent a week staying on the estate at a B&B and working in the building.
This is a long entry, possibly better to read in chunks. Sorry about that, I should have been blogging everyday, but I was too tired from Sheep Staring.
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I sleep well in my B&B on a farm, the luxury of a TV, lack of noise and the kind of darkness you only get in the countryside are the reasons, plus a hot water bottle, a dressing gown and a golden retriever called Mr Bingley (in this year of Pride and Prejudice). A full english breakfast at 8am and a lively chat with my landlady every morning helps as well. Although I haven’t wanted an egg, or a sausage, or bacon since returning.
Every morning I walk 10 minutes to The Hall, through a gate, up a track and past a field of five sheep and one deer. I have a staring match with the same sheep that eyeballed me and my pull along suitcase that I dragged up the muddy tracks on the first day. It is the same sheep, it looks like the same sheep and it’s rouge deer associate kept in the same enclosure. This sheep staring continues in sinister continuity for the rest of the week,all five of them and the deer watching me everyday, heads barley turning, eyes following, unblinking, like farm yard mona lisa’s. Silently. Chewing. Watching.
I can see them from the end of the track, lumbering around to face me. The only change in this intimidation routine is when a string of school kids walk past on the final day, chattering and ‘baaa ing’, the sheep keep their heads down, act like normal sheep. Until the children are gone, and their leader the shaggiest, biggest one of them with looping horns, makes a challenging ‘maaaaaaa’ at me. I think their rams, maybe with my furry parker hood they think I’m a sheep. On two legs. Or that I have developed some sort of ego centric sheep complex, or they just thought I was going to feed them. That is enough about sheep, although though I did also have a fight with a pig.
I spend a day aching through archives, searching online newspapers and getting distracted by stories that are hearsay and rumour. Whispers of drownings in the 160ft lakes, of land giving way to the salt beneath- a pool of salted water appearing from no where out of the ground. A mermaid that swims in land to ring a watery bell every Easter Sunday, a young woman, a young lady of the manor, drowning herself on the eve of her wedding some 250 years ago.
I keep asking questions about swimming in the lakes. The family, the male members, must have been swimming in the mere (that’s what these lakes are called). Remembering the first taxi I got up to Tatton Park where the driver told stories of jumping into ice cold depths to impress young ladies, like. He’d soon stagger out shivering, he told me, looked right tough when he was going in, not when he was coming out.
As soon as there is water involved I can’t help but try and submerge myself, try to find a drowning that’s been dragged through the years. It still returns to me that feeling, that morbid fascination in boated bodies and watery deaths. Standing at the edge of an expanse of water, like standing on the edge of a tall building. A breath too quick to think before I take a step, over the edge, into water. I can see myself walking into depths, water chattering up my body right over the top of my head. Coldness that surrounds my ears, chills my blood and bones. I try to imagine the bottom of the lake with clear eyes, sandy as huge fish swim past. 160 ft down, which I soon realise isn’t as deep as it sounds. Not quite the length of an olympic swimming pool. This is why the lakes in Tatton and Rostherne are called ‘Mere’s’ because they wider than they are deep.
There have been drownings, a rumour of one in the 18th century and one in just living memory. These stories are not about the house, they are not about the stories of the servants and the lives that they lived, they just feed into my cold water obsession. Although perhaps the servants went swimming, though it would appear there would be very little respite from their daily duties to go dipping into water.
I’m looking at screens all day-trying to find a way to explain all the material together, a diagram, a journey I can see myself telling stories too, finding obsessions in broken lifts, and the strict instructions of recent matriarchs. These icy water stories with which I had a brief affair seem not to be true, the tragic heroine drowning herself before she would marry is a story that has been passed down mouth to ear from servant and villager and visitor through generations until it ends up presented as fact on Wikipedia. Inevitably.
I take the track down to Knutsford (what the novels and TV series Cranford are based on) away from the big house and down to the town, before the gates shut at 5pm and you get locked in with the deer and have to scale the walls. My head still filled with water, I spot a fire rescue and recovery truck across the other side of the lake, stretchers, dinghy’s, firemen. My heart skips a beat in coincidence until I realise that this is a training day, a testing day for water saving.
I skulk around Knutsford, looking for a hot meal (I am on a staple diet of full english, national trust sandwiches and cuppa soup or pasta in a cup). Glamorous teenagers politely wait cups of coffee and over priced wine, behind bar and cafe, yearning back for the days of their travels in australia, south america and thailand. School children leap from shiny new four by fours that clog up tiny streets. I have seen no beggars, no big issue sellers. Thinking that 4pm is really too early to have a pint, I try to content myself in hot chocolate. I can’t think straight through all the stuff there is.
I think about the rumours and the entertainment provided by the family at the house for servants and the people that worked on the estate. Talking in times before television, twitter and for some periods, radio- (there is a stretch of 300 years or more). The family in the big house were the source of scandal and rumour, everyday events, where the servants, some servants had the most intimate of contact; dressing & washing, clothes, linen, underwear, the family.
Whispered behind hands would be where stories started, snippets of conversations saved and logged to patchwork together the aches and pains, family disputes and characters of The Family in The Big House. How much do we invent and gossip about bosses and superiors with grips and gripes now? Or the sofa psychology we hand out to celebrities as we watch, narrate and berate public breakups and breakdowns.
The hazily formed portraits of The Family can be pieced together through passed down oral history, excited revelations and exclamations, public announcements (invitations to The Queen’s sitting room, excursions to the theatre) and public achievements in industry and politics, news snippets (an accident in aviation) and obituaries. Although most of these physical sources tend to be dominated by the male side of the family, men being far more prominent in the public eye within these periods, the female branch of the family research relies on what can be found in personal effects- watercolour books, hand writing glanced in the notation of books, things that have been left behind.
The historical trail of the servants is reliant on the physical facts that have been documented in census’s, birth and death records. The log books of the wages paid, and boarding ledgers. I can see the handwriting that logs amounts of liqueur consumed, or linen and it’s quality. I can find out ages, full names, where they were before, and if they married. But there are no myths and legends that pass on the personalities of the servants, no newspaper articles where you can piece together characters. These were not the elite, the people the public wanted to know about, these were the public; everyday people doing jobs. Often moving through and upwards to different houses and households at a speedy rate. Their life at Tatton is often brief, they move on, up or sideways and leave little personal trace of their life at Tatton.
There is a small pleasure to be found in the matching up of servants pay in a 1909 ledger and their names apparent 2 years later on the 1911 census. The difference in pay between housemaid and house keeper. Peering through the cracks of people’s lives as a woman who is widowed finds her way back into the working world on half the pay of a woman her age who has given all her life to domestic service. Being married to the job has gained the pre-fix ‘Mrs’ as a sign of respect, though there is no ‘Mr’ for her ‘Mrs’, no children. The assumption is one ,at first, of sadness, of being married to a job, no life outside. But there is dedication and pleasure of a job well done. It is with a 21st century funnel that I look back on service and the word servant- I think that I worked in ‘Customer Service’ in a variety of roles for more than a decade of my life. Still do, on occasion, as a waitress-serving the public.
From the safe view point of a middle class woman where fight’s for woman’s rights and equality has been fought long before me (though not always to success- and still continues which is another story, another discussion), I am careful to be defined by what I do and my dedication to it, over my indifference to marriage and bearing children. Which is, perhaps, how it was for The Housekeeper, Mrs Martin, Emma Martin at Tatton Park in the early 1900’s. I know I am scrapping the barrel of comparison; I don’t work physically hard running up and downstairs, I don’t manage people, I don’t run a house with an unimaginable amount of rooms, I am not responsible for valuable items. I mean I make theatre. I’m an artist, innit? Sometimes a waitress, a barmaid. I have the luxury of that.
How do you get beyond the bare bones of what someone was on paper, to who they were, what they felt. How do you get beyond the stereo types and archetypes of a 20th Century housekeeper as stout, red faced and jolly, or strict and penny pinching and cold. Emma Martin could have been any of those things and none of them.
A little Pineapple Story and some more about lakes.
Feeling a little inconspicuous and a little at odds, as I have already been mistaken for the work experience girl (turns out that boots fine line reducing face cream works) and ID’d for cigarettes (I will put that down to duffel coat, bobble hat and mittens on strings combination), I wonder into a pub, deciding that 5pm is a fine time to have a pint. I order a half (unusual for me, but aware that one cuppa soup is not the way to line a stomach). I had turned down the temptation in familiarity of Pizza Express to try a local pub, which don’t start serving food until 6pm. An amazingly friendly manager from Bosnia (as I later learn) lights fires and chat’s to locals, people sit with huge dogs. It’s all low beams and comfy chairs with a restaurant area, that is upmarket to even a west London gastro pub.
I sneak outside for a rolly, and I am joined by an older man who talks me through the eateries and drinking holes around Knutsford. I still talk with a reservation of being asked rather than offering information, but ask me he does about whether I’m passing through or staying here. I tell him I’m doing work up at The Hall, and he know’s Tatton well, very well, grew up on that estate. Swum in those lakes. My watery obsession rises to the surface, yet again.
‘Oh’ I say ‘You can swim in them?’
‘Well you used to able too, can’t now…but I could tell you so much about Tatton, where do I start?…I know so much’
There is a pause.
‘Swimming, yes, swimming, well that last Lord Egerton, the one that owned it last, interesting man, did a lot for people around here, really for the boy scouts and stuff, they could camp out there and…well he was really for exercise and people getting fit, opening up the park to everyone…so he built a beach, he did, you know dug out the banks, put down stones. Built a jetty, a jetty right out with a glass bottom at the end so you could see down, you know, because there were fresh water oysters down there, then…You, see because, a river you know, used to flow through it, so it was constantly moving, getting fresh, water. Beautiful, it was, clear as anything, clean. Quarter of a mile wide, a mile and a quarter long, so you know, I’d go there when I was young. And of course the thing to do was to get to the other side quarter of mile..’
(My unfounded, and recently unswum superior swimmers brain starts adding up lengths and distances -about 15 lengths of a 25 metre pool. Fuck all. But looks intimidating in open water, and no buoyancy of salt… I digress)
‘You know he wanted people to enjoy it, take a walk, have a swim. But well when he died in the late 50’s I think it was..
..he left it to the national trust or what have you and they just let that river, the one that flowed through it, silt up, or what have you, and well it got that blue green allege in, that’s lethal to animals, you know…
And people. Well. That was it really. And they decided people couldn’t swim in it anymore. Took away all the life rings, I think you can still see the remnants of the old pier thing…I mean by that point they’d be boating and, well you’d be trying to get across to the other side, quarter of mile, you know and you’d get knocked by a boat’
I ask a question about drowning, rumours of drownings.
‘No..not that I can remember, not in my life time…no’
I do wonder how old he is, as he doesn’t look as old as to having been swimming pre-1958 in those lakes. Maybe it’s the swimming that makes youthful looks.
He used to work for the fire service, ‘knows all the ins and out of Tatton, you know, would do the fire checks’ so isn’t really impressed by my going up into The Attic rooms. He knows about the water tests they would have been doing when I mention seeing the fire truck earlier, but,’you see he wasn’t Knutsford-you have sleep in the fire station with all of them,’ no he was part of a service that’s based in another town further down the road.
We carry on talking in the bar, about Tatton, about the gardens-he’s got a year round pass. It is expensive though. I perch on a stool like a local, ordering half pints, that add up to more than I wanted before I actually ate.
I say, ‘Oh yes, they have a pinapplery?’
He say ‘Oh don’t talk to be about Pineapples’
I talk to him about Pineapples.
‘I’m really into my botany, right, love how all of it grows and learning and stuff…and I went to St Lucia, you know and the size of the pineapples, there well they were, you know huge..
(makes a gesture the size of a large pineapple.)
‘And I asked the fella, I asked him how they did it. He said, it’s quite simple, right so you cut the top off a pineapple leaves and all, eat the rest of it, you know. But you put the bit with all the leaves in water, and you let it go milky, sort of mouldy like. I mean you change the water every now and again. But not too often, until you start to see it grow roots. Right?..So I come back from St Lucia, and I buy myself a pineapple, I cut the top off, eat the rest of it, and I put the leafy bit in water, right? And sure enough I get this massive pineapple.’
(makes a gesture the size of a large pineapple)
Me: ‘What it just grows in water?’
Strange look from him.
‘No, no, no, you put it in sand like, pot it, when it’s got roots, I’ve got a sun trap in my back yard, so I’ve grown everything, lemons, limes, grapefruit…all these fruit. Right so I’ve got this pineapple and then I see on the front page of The Knutsford Guardian, that they’ve grown the first pineapple at Tatton in 80 years, right and it’s cost £36,000…but they’ve done it, first one in 80 years, right front page…And this pineapple is…tiny.
(makes a gesture the size of a small pineapple, about the size of a bookie’s pencil. Small)
‘So I phone up the head gardener cos I know him like and say, I’ve grown a massive pineapple, and it cost me nothing! He says you’re kidding, right, how did you do it? and then before I know it, The Knutsford Guardian phone me up..and I’m on the front page with me Pineapple!’
Later, he introduces me to his partner (she’s very glamorous, well dressed, coiffured hair, works in the charity shop across the road) and they help me chose a meal from the expensive (but very nice) menu. We talk about the increase in the friendliness the further up north you go. By this time it’s getting close to 7, and I’ve had a couple of merlot’s to wash down my £12.95 pie, business men in suits are turning up with overseas clients, expansively showing them around a traditional English Gastro- Pub. The staff are attentive, and I enjoy the curiosity involved in being a young woman dining alone.
There are a few other bits and pieces; layers and layers of plans for the house that were never built, a billiard room, that kept being swapped for a library or a map room or a music room, curved wall designs, extra pillars. Meeting the volunteers and house stewards who have their own histories, their own stories to tell about the house. Sneaking in through a forbidden gate to the gardens and getting put off by an army of zombie scarecrows. Theme parks being built over farming land, in ancient woodland and talk of mis use of money and public funds in this constituency of which is George Osbourne is MP. Finding the words to explain what it is I’m actually doing. Or what I actually do. Meeting another other artist, a textile artist and finding someone to talk through ideas with. Oh and a lift back to Birmingham as she lives a couple of miles away from me in the city, which helps.